Written by Ronald Comber

Hector Berlioz  (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, OP.14

I   Reveries – Passions
II  Un bal
III Scene aux champs
IV  March au Supplice
V   Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat

In very rare instances, artists in various disciplines come along who simply do not relate clearly to the age in which they live.  An El Greco in painting, or a Charles Ives in music could readily be used as examples of this phenomenon; each artist upon his maturity rapidly passed down a lonely path to eminence, reflecting no marked historic trend or influence, and on the way arousing little in the way of an immediate following.  El Greco’s revolutionary use of light and shade, the sheer movement inherent in his art, were duly noted and even admired in his time, but a separate evolution of the dynamics of expression in painting had to take place before one saw elements of his style again.  Ives, as a fairly well-trained young composer, proceeded to direct his musical imagination in a completely unforeseen manner to create music which is as shockingly modern today as it was at the turn of the century.

Hector Berlioz was another of these strange anomalous artists.  A Romantic of the brightest hue, Berlioz nonetheless wrote music almost entirely unrelated to any of his contemporaries.  His musical language, as represented in his melodic flow, his harmonies and his orchestration, bears even less resemblance to the music of his predecessors.  He appears to have chosen the path he wished to travel within a year of his first formal lessons in harmony at the Conservatoire, and to have progressed along from there.

Berlioz wrote the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830, to a program that he had gradually developed in 1829.  To put that into some perspective, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was completed in 1823, published in 1826.  Mendelssohn, who was six years younger than Berlioz, had written the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826, in 1829-1831 his Italian and Scottish Symphonies were in the process of completion.  Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was from a different consciousness.

Although Berlioz was strangely reticent in his Memoirs (strongly recommended reading), scholars generally agreed that the Symphonie Fantastique is a reflection of his love for the actress Harriet Simpson, distorted and rearranged through his artistic imagination.  Berlioz was, as befitted an artist of the first years of the Romantic period, largely concerned with the free expression of emotions and of ideals, both in his own life and in his art.  His letters from this time in his life, written, as it were, at the top of his lungs, expose an almost heroic excess of emotion and a disquieting occasional hint of genius, like a whiff of gunpowder.  The Symphonie Fantastique is the tangible result of dangerous tensions carefully analyzed and cultivated.

The work, in five movements, was written around an elaborate story which Berlioz intended for publication with each performance.  Later, after the premiere in Paris on December 5th, 1830, Berlioz decided that the movement titles would be sufficient, and the program could be part of a monologue which would complete the performance.  I will merely write a shortened version:

“In a fit of amorous despair, a young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium.  The dosage is too weak to kill him, but plunges him into a heavy sleep that is accompanied by strange visions…even the Beloved One takes the form of a melody in his mind, like a fixed idea that ever returns…

First movement: Reveries; Passions.  He thinks of sombre longings, of depression and the joyous elation that the Beloved One inspired in him…of his raging jealousy.

Second movement: Un bal.  Amidst the tumult of a brilliant ball, he sees his Beloved One again.

Third movement: Scene aux champs.  He is in the country where he hears two shepherd lads play a pastoral duet…then she appears once more and he is filled with forebodings of her unfaithfulness.

Fourth movement:  Marche au supplice.  He dreams that he has murdered his Beloved and has been condemned to death on the gallows.  The thought of his love returns but is cut short by the death blow.

Fifth movement:  Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat.  He dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath…his Beloved joins the revels.  Bells toll for the dead.  The Witches perform a Round Dance.  The Dance and the Dies Irae sound together.

Symphonie Fantastique is a tour de force of bravura writing and of completely unprecedented orchestral effects.  The work is  organic in an entirely new way, its subject shocked and generally upset three whole generations of concert-goers, and it is largely timeless, except in its subject matter.  French music, however, travelled quite a different path, leaving Berlioz in a position not unlike the Ozymandius statue, a monolithic figure set in the ruins of past glory.